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Religious colleges have ‘a license to discriminate.’ Andrew Hartzler wants to revoke it

Andrew Hartzler
Courtesy of REAP
Andrew Hartzler

The Hartzler name carries weight in Missouri politics. U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, has spent her decades as a state lawmaker and congresswoman opposing gay marriage on religious grounds. She’s now in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign that’s prominently featured her calls to restrict the rights of trans people.

Andrew Hartzler grew up a neighbor to his politically prominent aunt. He’s gay — and one of more than 40 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit led by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project. The suit seeks to end an exemption in federal civil rights law that allows religious colleges to discriminate against gay students, even while receiving federal funding. According to the lawsuit, the exemption acts as a “license to discriminate” against an estimated 100,000 LGBTQ students at more than 200 religious colleges in the U.S., including six in Missouri.

Though Hartzler is one of the dozens of plaintiffs in the suit, his experience as a gay student trying to survive at a religious college — and his recognizable surname — were given top billing in a lengthy Politicoarticle about the lawsuit published last month.

The article opened by describing Hartzler’s attendance at a mandatory sermon at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2017. On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Hartzler described the same sermon, in which the president of the university, William Wilson, “told everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes.”

Hartzler was a freshman at the time. He said Wilson asked everyone to raise their hands “if they were struggling with sexual identity problems.”

“And I remember being quite scared that anyone would raise their hand,” he recalled. “It's funny. If you watch the video of the recorded chapel service online, the camera actually pans to the audience, and you see every one with their hand raised.”

Hartzler saw the filmed sermon as “a trap” to expose gay students. The school’s honor code prohibits “any homosexual activity” — and he believed the college took that rule much more seriously than its prohibition on premarital sex for heterosexuals.

Indeed, two years after the sermon, Hartzler found himself in the dean’s office, accused of having a boyfriend. Hartzler was placed on official notice and ordered to attend “accountability meetings” that, he noted on Wednesday, “mirrored my experience with conversion therapy.”

And that is perfectly legal under federal law. In recent decades, Title IX — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — has been expanded to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. However, religious schools like Oral Roberts enjoy a formal exemption.

A portrait of Saren Craig in a short-sleeved blue shirt and standing in front of a lake.
Courtesy of REAP
Saren Craig, a Missouri native who attended the College of the Ozarks, is part of a class-action lawsuit targeting anti-gay discrimination at religious schools.

That exemption allows those institutions to receive federal funding by way of government loans or grants.

“The problem with Title IX is it has this exemption that's very broad and says if you're a religious institution, basically, you are exempt from Title IX,” Joe Baxter, an attorney and legal fellow with the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, explained Wednesday.

“It is this exemption that we are challenging the constitutionality of,” Baxter continued, “because of the impact that it has on each of these students. It denies them the benefits of federal program solely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity.”

For many students, including gay ones, attending a religious college is a sensible decision because it is the only school their parents will pay for. Others don’t fully realize how strict — and discriminatory — the policies can be before arriving on campus.

Saren Craig, a Missouri native who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told St. Louis on the Air that they enrolled at the College of the Ozarks for practical reasons. For one thing, the school famously allows students to work campus jobs in exchange for tuition.

“My dad had gone there,” Craig noted. “I wasn't aware of the strong religious component of it. I knew it was a part of it; you had to go to a number of chapels every semester.”

But part of Craig’s life didn’t fit with the college’s Bible-inspired policies. After Craig realized an attraction to women and sought out counseling sessions to deal with depression, a therapist suggested that the same-sex attraction had caused it. Craig, who had wanted a counselor to help delve into past physical and sexual abuse, became more depressed.

“It didn't feel like my true self. And I had to get out of there,” Craig said.

After leaving the College of the Ozarks, Craig went on to join the Air Force and today works as a registered counselor in Portland, Oregon.

For Craig, joining the lawsuit was a way to ensure what happened to them wouldn’t happen to another gay student. The schools, they said, “should definitely stop discriminating.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."